The Iceman Reconsidered [Preview]

Where was the Iceman's home, and what was he doing at the high mountain pass where he died? Painstaking research--especially of plant remains found with the body--contradicts many of the initial speculations

On a clear day in September 1991 a couple hiking along a high ridge in the Alps came upon a corpse melting out of the ice. When they returned to the mountain hut where they were staying, they alerted the authorities, who assumed the body was one of the missing climbers lost every year in the crevasses that crisscross the glaciers of the region. But after the remains were delivered to nearby Innsbruck, Austria, Konrad Spindler, an archaeologist from the university there, ascertained that the corpse was prehistoric. The victim, a male, had died several thousand years ago. Spindler and other scientists deduced that his body and belongings had been preserved in the ice until a fall of dust from the Sahara and an unusually warm spell combined to melt the ice, exposing the mans head, back and shoulders.

No well-preserved bodies had ever been found in Europe from this period: the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. The Iceman is much older than the Iron Age men from the Danish peat bogs and older even than the Egyptian royal mummies. Almost as astounding was the presence of a complete set of clothes and a variety of gear.

In the ensuing excitement over the discovery, the press and researchers offered many speculations about the ancient man. Spindler hypothesized an elaborate disaster theory. He proposed that the man had fled to safety in the mountains after being injured in a fight at his home village. It was autumn, Spindler went on, and the man was a shepherd who sought refuge in the high pastures where he took his herds in summer. Hurt and in a state of exhaustion, he fell asleep and died on the boulder on which he was found five millennia later. The beautiful preservation of the body, according to this account, was the result of a fall of snow that protected the corpse from scavengers, followed by rapid freeze-drying.

Because the uniqueness of the discovery had not been immediately evident, the corpse was torn from the ice in a way that destroyed much archaeological information and damaged the body itself. A more thorough archaeological excavation of the site took place in the summer of 1992 and produced much valuable evidence, including an abundance of organic material (seeds, leaves, wood, mosses). This material added greatly to the plant remains, especially mosses, already washed from the clothes during the conservation process. Now, after a decade of labor-intensive research by us and other scientists on these plant remains and on samples taken from the Icemans intestines, some hard facts are revising those first, sketchily formed impressions and replacing them with a more substantiated story.

Who Was He?
THE HIKERS HAD DISCOVERED the body at 3,210 meters above sea level in the Ötztal Alps, which led to the popular humanizing nickname Ötzi. A mere 92 meters south of the Austrian-Italian border, the shallow, rocky hollow that sheltered the body is near the pass called Hauslabjoch between Italys Schnalstal (Val Senales in Italian) and the Ventertal in Austria [see map on opposite page]. Ötzi lay in an awkward position, draped prone over a boulder, his left arm sticking out to the right, and his right hand trapped under a large stone. His gear and clothing, also frozen or partially frozen in the ice, were scattered around him, some items as far as several meters away. Radiocarbon dates from three different laboratories made both on plant remains found with the body and on samples of tzis tissues and gear all confirm that he lived about 5,300 years ago.

Certain other features of tzi were relatively easy to discover as well. At 159 centimeters (5' 2.5"), he was a small man, as many men in the Schnalstal vicinity are today. Bone studies show he was 46 years old, an advanced age for people of his time. DNA analysis indicates his origin in central-northern Europe, which may seem obvious, but it differentiates him from Mediterranean people, whose lands lie not too far distant to the south.

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